Mezcal’s future could be fated to repeat the past.
For decades, tequila was treated like a convenient shortcut to inebriation, pushed to the very bottom of the epicurean food chain in the United States. It was the quickest way from A to B, and it was usually thrown back lightning-fast with alternative flavors distributed before and after the fact to conceal the taste as much as possible. There was no time, nor any expectation, for savoring the spirit itself.
After many years, however, American audiences came around. There was renewed interest in not only high-end, 100 percent agave tequila — itself a type of mezcal — but mezcal as well, the consumption of which has been steadily increasing for the last decade (according to International Wine & Spirits Research, U.S. volumes increased by 279% between 2005-2015). It’s an exciting time to be an appreciator of agave spirits.
Perhaps that’s why the community at large seemed to look at the release of Dos Hombres Mezcal, launched by Breaking Bad actors Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, with a bit of collective side-eye. Since neither appeared to know much about the spirit, questions swirled as to why these two men were starting a mezcal brand in the first place — other than to cash in on the Clooney effect — and how this could influence the category. One brand is not likely to upend a category all by its lonesome, but it could be the catalyst to further industrialize production of what is arguably the world’s most artisanal spirit.
Coming to America
Like the Ferris Wheel and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, tequila was first introduced to Americans in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The popularity of the spirit flourished over the subsequent century, bolstered at one point by Prohibition, which saw tequila smuggled over the border to satisfy the needs of thirsty Americans. By the 1970s, it was a household name.
During the turn of the 21st century, at the exact time that tequila consumption was hitting an all-time high, tequila producers weathered a significant blow: A fungal plague destroyed a large swath of agave plants in 1997. The number of Weber blue agave plants, those used in the majority of tequila production, dropped by half, and the price per pound skyrocketed, increasing by over 1,000 percent on average.
At this time, the vast majority of tequilas consumed at bars across the United States or thrown back with a flourish at college parties was mixto, meaning that at least 51% of the spirit was agave distillate and the rest could be made from other materials such as corn or sugar. The resultant beverage was not what a selective drinker would refer to as “good tequila,” nor did it have to contain spirit made entirely in Mexico, its place of origin.
Despite the shortage, tequila experienced immense commercial success, but it also became unequivocally commoditized. What had once made tequila stand out among other spirits categories was no longer its primary selling point, and producers leaned into a less distinctive style of spirit. The category as a whole moved further away from its poetic beginnings. Take the growth and harvest of the agave, for example: The heart of the agave plant, called the piña, takes between six and 10 years to mature, and each time it’s reaped it must be replanted and the clock starts over as the plant grows anew. There is really no way to rush this process, and that should be taken into account whenever a person purchases a bottle of tequila for less than $40. Mezcal, which is primarily made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca but can legally come from nine different states, is even more artisanal than tequila — producers, called palenqueros, often harvest the agave themselves and roast the piñas using ancient practices. A distinctive smokiness is imparted during this process, and coupled with the location, soil, and variety of agave used, each run of mezcal ends up with loads of terroir reflective of the individual distillery.
For better or worse, it looks as though mezcal may be following the same trajectory tequila once did. It was inevitable that the category would swell, and that production would need to increase to satisfy demand — there were just too many people hailing mezcal’s authenticity and good flavor for it to be ignored.
The brand responsible for bringing mezcal to the attention of the wider world is inarguably Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal. Ron Cooper started Del Maguey in 1995 to introduce single village mezcals to consumers outside of the small hamlets where it was made, but he himself first became familiar with the spirit back in the 1970s. Cooper spent decades cultivating relationships with the Zapotec Mexican Indian people and learning about the traditional practices they use to make mezcal. Pernod Ricard purchased a majority stake in Del Maguey in 2017, and Cooper said of the decision, “We partnered with Pernod Ricard because they understand and appreciate our mission of preserving the culture of the Zapotec people and protecting the traditional process of making mezcal.”
The difference with the Dos Hombres brand and Del Maguey is that neither Cranston nor Paul seem to know much about mezcal. Much of their promotional material frames the decision to start a mezcal brand as a spontaneous one between buds, and compared to Del Maguey, which informs website visitors of the state, region, village, and individual palenqueros responsible for making each item offered, Dos Hombres is curiously laconic on the specifics of production. It’s also bottled at 42 percent alcohol, slightly lower than the traditional proof.
The introduction of a celebrity-owned mezcal brand is not all doom and gloom. It will have positive effects, like introducing new people to the spirit, and more importantly, it will put money into the hands of the producers back in Mexico. Tourism will increase, buoying the local economy, and more respect will be paid to this strange, delicious spirit since it now has the endorsement of a couple of famous faces.
My question here is not whether these two gentlemen should start their own brand of a culturally specific spirit — it’s certainly not my place to tell them what they should and should not do — but I do wonder whether increased production will strip the spirit of some of the elements that make it uniquely delicious.
Mezcal defies industrialization more than most. To begin production, harvested agave are roasted in a stone pit over a wood fire. This step is crucial both to develop the flavor profile that mezcal is known for and to pay tribute to tradition. Variables that can be adjusted during this step include the length of roasting and the type of wood used, but the fire really must be wood burning. Once roasted, the agave are ground prior to fermentation. Traditionally, this is done on a millstone called a tahona that is powered either by horse or donkey. This step in the process has already undergone modernization; the turning of the tahona is now mechanized in some distilleries.
Fermentation is next, usually with native yeast, which takes time — the yeast colony develops plenty of flavor as it slowly grows over a week or more. It is a central step to the tradition of mezcal distillation, and, I fear, one of the first practices likely to be dispensed with as the industrialization of mezcal continues. The liquid and solids are then transferred into the still to go through the first distillation, which is heated through direct fire. Though traditional outfits may still use wood to fire their stills, some palenques have already made the shift to alternative heat sources that provide greater precision and efficiency.
The equipment, raw ingredients, and processes used by distillers across the world are always subject to change as new information becomes available and technologies are developed. Part of the beauty of mezcal is that it comes from an ancient way of production, which is a far cry from the ultra-modern plants that make the vast majority of America’s spirit today. But raging against the inevitable is an exercise in futility. There is likely to be a shakeout as the category is infused with more producers, but the boost in resources making its way back to Oaxaca cannot be overlooked. For mezcal lovers, it seems we’re headed down a mysterious path full of delights and disappointments in equal measure. I, for one, am happy to make that journey.
National Geographic, Tequila Rocks